The Kansas City Symphony welcomed guest conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane back to the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall for a mixed program of styles and influence on Friday.
Kahane led Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major from the piano as soloist. Ravel was inspired by jazz he heard while on his 1927 tour of the United States and incorporated the élan of the genre, along with its rhythmic and harmonic characteristics.
Kahane gave a thoroughly internalized performance, and the orchestra kept up with him, mostly. The snarly rhythms and punctuations supporting and combating the piano line weren’t as aggressively locked in as possible during the first movement. Even with the lid off the piano, the ensemble came over the top of the solo line at times, the balance issues disrupting the nuanced coloristic blend Ravel had designed.
That being said, they gave a solid reading of a challenging piece, with impressive expression from individual voices. Kahane’s opening solo in the second movement was riveting, enhanced by the orchestra’s response. Kahane pressed forward on the Presto — such a feat — maintaining a steady intensity while all around him the orchestra kept pace.
The orchestra fulfilled the lightness and joyousness of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major. Buoyant releases, excellent dynamic gradations, dramatic contrasts and succinct, effective accents gave the work a lively, bubbly attitude. Kahane conducted with full-bodied enthusiasm but economical movement, not even gesturing during the initial flurry of the final movement, the ensemble engaged and cohesive throughout.
In contrast, the two tone poems by Antonín Dvořák in the second half were steeped in gruesome folklore. Again, Kahane led the group through excellent renditions of the evocative scores.
In “The Water Goblin,” the ensemble offered both pathos and menace in the iterative themes, the energy coming through the inner voices. From a gorgeous chorale in cellos and brass, the flute solo elided the rumbling tension that gave way to the piece’s climactic crest, the mother’s sorrow and terror clearly conveyed.
“The Noonday Witch” had similar themes of menace and horror. The characters and emotions were revealed in motifs: the child as a disruptive rhythm for the oboe, the witch in quiet tones from low voices, the mother in sobbing intervals and a swirling crescendo of fear.
With a broad final statement and crashing flourish, the orchestra hit the last rhythmic punches strong and accurately for an exciting finish.